Thursday, March 10, 2005

Down Townes, or the Misguided Maser-Maker

This morning I was listening to the radio, and an interview came on with Charles Townes, recent recipient of the Templeton Prize for "work in the field of religion" and co-inventor of the laser. In this interview, he explained that he did not view science and religion as being in competition, nor are they incongruous, but rather they should come together and work in concert. His reasoning for this is that both science and religion are attempts to discover fundamental truths about the universe.

As his fellow Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson illustrates, the disclaimer that "past performance is no guarantee of future results" does not only apply to the stock market. Put simply, Doctor Townes is wrong. There is a great difference between science and religion.

There are superficial similarities between the two. Dr. Townes mentions moments of epiphany or revelation in science; these often precede major advancements. They might also lead nowhere, often with many years of work and several careers along the way. In either case, the revelation is not science, it is an idea for an avenue of inquiry. It comes from a mind tuned to a particular problem and possessing the requisite skills to understand both the problem and the solution. Once imagined, an idea is not dogma; it must be tested experimentally, and only once confirmed can it be accepted as accurate.

Science does not deal in absolute truths, but in abstractions and approximations. We develop models to describe how the universe behaves. The advancement of science comes from the discovery of where our current models fail, and what new models might account for the unexpected behavior. Always, reality is our guide.

Religion presents its tenets as absolute truths. The untestable is glorified with the mantle of "faith." Where dogma and reality collide, reality is frequently ignored or denied until its weight forces dogma to change. Galileo was absolved in 1992 of the "crime" of finding that the Earth revolves around the Sun. This demonstrates how conservative the Roman Catholic Church can be in its dogma, and how unwilling a religious institution can be to reconsider its positions in the light of new evidence.

No, science and religion are very different. Science is the pursuit of the truth through investigation, knowing that you will never reach it but only grow closer and closer to it. Religion is the dictating of the truth by those more interested in being authoritative than right. It is a shame that a Nobel Prize-winning Physicist is unable to see this.

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